About that other Apple announcement…
On March 9 2015, Apple introduced a new product. It’s telling of where it’s been — and where it’s going, if you’ve followed the company long enough.
If your first thought was Apple Watch, well, that’s understandable. The anticipation for the Apple Watch was as thick as the backseat of a car after the prom. Tech journalists, pundits and fans who looked busy at work while watching the webcast either thought it was third coming of the best thing since sliced bread (first and second being the iPhone and iPad), or they couldn’t imagine spending more than a buck for a watch at the dollar store.
No, I’m talking about the MacBook. Now, I realize that some of you have a sad trombone playing in your head and are thinking, “MacBook? Why do I care about the MacBook? It’s all about mobile! You just don’t understand the younger generation!”
But the fact of the matter is that a traditional computer of some kind is how many people still interact and access information — and as much as Apple’s tried to make iOS devices stand-alone products, setting them up is easiest through a laptop or desktop. They’re necessary. A necessary evil, some might argue, but necessary, nonetheless.
Apple knows this too. Despite declining sales, the MacBook announcement was just as long as the Apple Watch presentation. It’s telling of what Apple thinks of the continuing importance of traditional computer — or as Steve Jobs called them, “trucks” — to consumers in general.
“All of This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again”
If you’re old enough, or if you know your history, you know some of the Mac’s roots are with the company’s $10,000- per-copy debacle, the Lisa. That’s $10,000 in 1983 money, which is about $24,000 adjusted for today’s inflation. Despite being a flop, it was one of the the first production computer to incorporate a mouse. (Which, because someone’s bound to bring it up in the comments, was from Xerox PARC, as was the desktop metaphor for the Mac OS GUI.)
The original Mac, or Macintosh 128K (as in 128K of RAM), also incorporated other non-standard features for the time. System 1.0, original Mac operating system, was one of the first commercial graphic user interfaces. Printer, modem and keyboard ports were all non-standard or used non-standard protocols for the time. The Mac was expensive compared to PCs at the time (some things never change) and some criticized it for not including a second floppy drive, which was also a non-standard 3.5″ design from Sony (and not “floppy”).
When Jobs made his return to Apple in 1997 from his “time in the wilderness,” of founding NeXT and Pixar (we should all do so well when the rest of us are fired), he introduced the iMac a year later. Apple needed a hit. The company was in danger of its plug being pulled at any moment and it was in a hospital with a floor made of banana peels.
Did Jobs play it safe? Of course not. The original Bondi Blue iMac is considered one of Apple’s classic designs. The striking colored plastic casings were revolutionary compared to the beige box PCs at the time and are an iconic part of ’90s culture. Apple also caused a mini-furor over dumping traditional ports for USB in addition to the floppy drive.
After nine versions of System/Mac OS and several failed attempts to transition to a next-generation operating system, Jobs announced that there would be no Mac OS 10. Instead, it would be replaced by OS X version 10.0 in 2001, built on NeXT’s NeXTSTEP Unix-based operating system. With 15-plus years of legacy code and software, developers had a collective fit. A similar shock occurred during the 2005 World Wide Developer Conference, when Jobs announced that Apple would be dropping Motorola processors for Intel chips.
They were bold gambles that, as we know, paid off in the end.
More recently, Apple dumped optical drives beginning with the original MacBook Air 2008 — in addition to ethernet and Firewire . It also only came with one USB port, an audio-out port, a video-out port (mini-DVI) and a power port and an underpowered processor. It also included options for flash storage. A fully optioned-out MBA was one of Apple’s more expensive models.
While the MacBook Air began as a niche device, Apple refined it until it became a laptop for everyone. In fact, it killed the original iteration of the MacBook.
Fast forward to the present day. Critics are outraged that Apple has the audacity to equip the retina MacBook (though officially it’s just “MacBook”) with just one port. That port, a USB-C, isn’t even found on their other Macs — or any other computers, for that matter, with the exception of Google’s new Pixel Chromebook…or that they’ll charge so much for computer with such an underpowered processor…or the upcoming laptop does not have Thunderbolt, which Apple introduced just four years earlier.
The internet, predictably, exploded (because it’s good for clicks and SEO) with comments like, “Apple is crazy! All they care about are thinner and thinner designs! I’d trade battery life for more ports!”
As if Apple hadn’t done this before. Or hell, used the same name.
Not Skating to Where the Puck Was
If you look at Apple’s past, you see a pattern of embracing change for something that just works better, in the same way Apple product are praised for “just working”. They’re not afraid of shedding old standards and embracing new ones, even before people are ready.
The new retina MacBook gives us clues to what the company’s vision is. It’s a device that primarily uses wireless technology to connect to each other and to the peripherals with the minimal use of wired technology, if any. People have openly wondered if iOS and OS X will ever merge, but we do know we are at a point where the connectivity philosophy of Apple’s mobile and computing devices have converged.
The MacBook is more like the iPad and iPhone, from a hardware standpoint, than any past desktop or laptop from anyone. If the technology comes along that can quickly wirelessly charge devices reliably and provide fast, multiple Gbps-level data transfer, Apple would have devices with no ports.
This also bring us back to the Apple Watch. It has no ports. Charging is done through magnetic induction. It uses Bluetooth to access data and install apps with the iPhone as its proxy. The Apple watch could be the company’s baby steps into that wireless future.
Yes, Apple has backtracked and its record is not perfect. Jobs was famous for saying that no one wanted to watch movies on an iPod or that the size of the original iPhone was perfect. FireWire and Thunderbolt never really set the computer industry ablaze with high speed connection. Apple’s internet services, compared to Google, Dropbox and other competitors, have always been lacking, to put it nicely. But you can’t take risks without getting it wrong sometimes.
One of the most common complaint of most corporations is how risk-averse they are. However Apple is not “most corporations”. It is the largest publicly traded company in the world. As much as its competitors don’t like to admit it, Apple sets the tone for consumer expectations in the mobile and computer markets. If Apple were another risk-averse company, it would not be any of those things.
If it weren’t for unreasonable people, there would be no progress. And if it wasn’t for Apple, the computer and mobile industry as a whole would move much slower.
Apple is a company that’s not afraid to drag its customers, kicking and screaming, to where the puck is going to be whether they think they’re ready or not.